Sunday 23 October 2016

I want it all ... and I want it NOW

John Masterson

Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30

Ballot papers: the general election takes place on Friday.
Ballot papers: the general election takes place on Friday.

To vote next Friday one has to be 18 years old. There have been discussions about lowering this age limit. It is ironic that you have to be an adult to vote because, so far as I can see, the default position of the main political parties is to treat us as children. I am regularly reminded of the famous 'deferred gratification' experiment carried out by social psychologist Walter Mischel in Stanford University in the 1970s and of the many follow ups conducted since.

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It takes children time to learn self control. A mark of mature adults is that they are able to resist temptation and think of the long term consequences of behaviour. Mischel carried out his experiments with many children aged between four and six. It was simple. They were placed in a room with a marshmallow in front of them. They could eat it if they liked, BUT, if they waited 15 minutes, they would be given a second one as well.

Children use all sorts of routines. They face away. They cover their eyes. They try to distract themselves. Some even rub the marshmallow affectionately. Some give in to temptation... About one third hold out. In follow up studies it is apparent that the children who do well on resisting temptation also tend to do well in later life on important indices like happiness and health. They are more competent.

In one variation on this experiment researchers had two groups face the task, one group having already dealt with a broken promise. This was important. It mattered that the children believed that there actually would be a second marshmallow. Hmm.

Next Friday you are going to be faced with a lot of names on a list that have gathered up all the marshmallows they could find and offered them to you. They may have even borrowed money to buy the marshmallows. Mischel never tried an experiment where the kids got the marshmallow only to discover that it came out of their own pocket money.

Given the choice between money in our pockets now which comes with housing queues, trolleys, too few teachers and nurses and doctors, we are ready to behave like the dumbest four-year-olds on the block. We want the goodies and we want them now.

Of course we haven't even had the benefit of being told that if we defer our gratitude there will be more marshmallows. They know we cannot wait, so they don't even bother painting a picture of a society that might take 20 years to build. We will focus our attention on climate change only when it has become such an emergency that we can no longer ignore it. No sooner.

When they did the sums which showed we were on course for too few hospital beds, too few social houses, an ageing population, a warming planet, they knew that so long as we thought we got one marshmallow each all would be well - because we were really just a bunch of hungry self-centred four-year-olds.

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